Grandmothers may be more connected to grandchildren than to own offspring

The first study to examine the brain function of grandmothers has found that they may be more emotionally connected to their grandchild than to their own children.

The grandmother hypothesis is a theory that says that women tend to live decades past their reproductive years because they provide physical support to their children. The presence of engaged grandparents has been shown to boost children's wellbeing and educational performance.


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Prof James Rilling and his colleagues recruited 50 women with at least one biological grandchild between three and 12 years old to have their brains scanned to better understand the biological basis of this connection.

The areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy are activated. That suggests that grandmothers are aware of what their grandsons are feeling. They feel the child's joy if the grandchild is smiling. They are feeling the child's pain and distress if their grandchild is crying.

As fathers looked at pictures of their children, Rilling performed a similar exercise. The fathers had more activation in the emotion processing areas, but the grandmothers had more in the reward and motivation areas.

When the grandmothers looked at images of their adult child, there were different areas of the brain that were activated. This could mean that they were trying to understand their adult child, rather than experiencing the emotional connection. When you can empathise with someone else, but not at a cognitive level, it is called cognitive empathy.

This could help to explain why grown-up children are more excited to see their parents' children than they are. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Young children have evolved to be able to manipulate the grand-maternal brain. An adult child may not have the same cute factor as an adult child.

The results support the idea that there is a global caregiving system in the brain of mothers, fathers and grandmothers. To see how they compare, Rilling wants to study grandfathers and other providers.